10/07/2009 08:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Movie review: An Education

As coming-of-age films go, An Education is one of the better ones - and one of the few that doesn't equate "coming-of-age" with "horny teen boy," past or present.

Instead, director Lone Scherfig's film, adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, is about a quietly adventurous girl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), who suddenly has the door opened for her into a world of sophisticated adulthood she had only imagined. Thanks to a carefully etched performance by Mulligan, her journey may be bittersweet, but the sweet (and the funny) outweigh the bitter.

Jenny is nearing the end of high school at a private school in the dull London suburb of Twickenham. It's 1961, that cusp period shortly pre-Beatles, in the days when edgy means the French new wave, American cool jazz and smoking Gauloises.

Jenny is bored to death with school, though her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) and her teachers pressure her about her performance and how it will affect her ability to get into college. Still, her father seems ambivalent, wondering if he's wasting his money, given his conviction that Jenny would be just as well off to skip college, get a job and find a husband.

Then Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming older man (i.e., in his 30s), who sweeps her off her feet. Though she's only 16, she's mature for her age - but not so mature that she isn't overcome a little by the glamour of a man with his own car and a sharp suit - and an interest in her. He woos her with invitations to hear string quartet concerts in flashier parts of London than she's used to, followed by drinks in posh bars.

Better still, he's able to snow her parents, convincing them that he's a respectable young man with only the best intentions for their daughter. Before long, she's complicit in his lies that get her parents to let her join him on overnights in England and Paris.

Still, there are inklings that David isn't necessarily who he seems to be. Gradually, Jenny learns the first of several lessons: that things that seem to be too good usually are.

If the eventual destination of this story seems preordained, the journey itself is both captivating and compelling.

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